The first chicks of the Arctic summer

Part 18. Summer slides by in the Arctic

19 July

I couldn’t keep my eyes open to read and passed out at 0100 but woke at 0300, and again at 5, and finally got up at 0730. I had a big omelet for breakfast w/ tea. Mmmmmm. I was dreaming about food again. And about making coffee. I was having trouble with the whole measuring thing. I dreamed I was at a feast and there was food everywhere. Of course, I was drawn to the desserts. Rich, creamy, fat. Mmmmmm.

After I ate, I went to the tundra. It is gray, horizon to horizon. Gray. No relief. There is no real horizon either. The water and sky meet somewhere indistinguishable. There must be a line there somewhere, but it is not revealing itself to me.

The bluffs were clear and double in a superior image, but there was also a big gap between them. The air has a remarkably clear quality so that even when, or perhaps especially when, there is no sun, and it is gray all around you can see miles without any loss of clarity. The bluffs seem as close as my hand they are so sharp. Anyway, I walked to the tundra; I found the remaining tern chick, a mobile ball of fluff. The parents were diving on me. It’s incredible I wasn’t struck. They dive straight for your face, right between the eyes. The more you look directly at them, the more they attack. One parent would stop and hover over the chick for a minute or two to be sure it was OK – that is what gave its location away, and finally, I saw it move. Cute bugger. Except for its orange bill it blended into the gravel and sand perfectly.

The long-tailed duck nest I’ve been watching is still being incubated, and amazingly, I discovered a second nest only about 20’ from it. I accidentally flushed the female today. There were six eggs. How long has that nest been there that I completely missed it – even with all the trips to the terns and the other long-tailed nest? There were two Xena (Sabine’s gull) babies on the pond. Another pair of cute buggers. The Xena also dove on me. Nobody likes me over there. The Brant are gone. They and their balls of fluff are on the lagoon. There are hundreds of long-tailed ducks piling up on the beach and the lagoon. They are beginning to molt- or as I thought to myself this morning, shed. Silly me.

There was a little mist/sprinkle in the air, and as it got later, it got colder and rawer. Walking back to camp, I found a whale vertebra pushed up on the beach by the ice – still no jaw bone. There was also a fabulous pair of red-throated loons on the north shore water. I took probably too many pictures as they were not close enough for the lens but were within 50’ of me so great for the binocs. This is the first time I was able to see the red of their throats and the lines up the backs of their necks. Gorgeous. Different from both the Pacific and Yellow-billed loons but spectacular nonetheless.

It has begun drizzling, and the temp is down to 36º. I am aware these days how dark it is at night. Of course, it isn’t dark at all, but it is quite definitely night. Without having seen the sun but for two days in Barrow, the night is gray, cold, and an eternal dusk. As the eastern sky lightens, there is the effect of sunrise and often the pink and gold light that accompanies such a time. In Barrow the other morning, as I was leaving the ARF at 0600, I could see the golden early morning light, and I was glad for that few minutes of beauty and sad for its implication. The summer is by no means eternal and, while I wait for the intense summer sun and warmth, the days slide by in their most fluid form, unbroken by the dark of night. Each day threatening that much more to slide straight into fall and the dark of winter. I expect to switch my schedule soon to accommodate the chick weighing – noon to 1700-ish. It will be dark soon at night. Aug 2 is the first day when the sun technically sets, that’s less than two weeks. I’m not ready to relinquish this extra time and the energy that I gained. I am not ready to relinquish the sun, of which I have seen so little.

22 Aug July

Again several days passed since I wrote. I had only a couple hours of sleep on the afternoon of the 19th when I was awakened by Dave – he came to the tent and woke me. He told me there was a fax from Mom that said my grandmother died. She didn’t say which one and I was rather sleepy and startled from a dream I was having (falling into the water at the edge of the ice pack and being unable to breathe or move or call for help – the effort of trying to yell woke me). We radioed ARF, to have them call Mom. To no avail – Dave made an executive decision that I should go back to Barrow until I could talk to Mom. We boated back – by the time we got in, it was too late back east to call so I went to Dave’s softball game.

Back at ARF, the owl crew was celebrating the success of their first owl transmitter attachment.

I spoke with Mom in the morning, her mother died of heart failure. She was 94.

I went out with Mat from the owl crew that morning for nest check. We hiked probably 10 or 12 miles checking nests on the tundra, and we hauled – he’s the only person I’ve ever known that can keep up with me (and vice versa). We made it back to BASC at 1400 and headed east, back to Cooper. Mat came along with Dave and me for the boat trip, and was suitably impressed by Cooper – I think he now knows for sure that I’m crazy. He saw a Sabine’s gull – a lifer –so was happy to make the trip. I walked them down the island to the boat and sent them on their way. I am glad to be home.

I tried to modify my schedule some, but it is impossible since switching back and forth twice in as many weeks. I tried to sleep only a few hours last night and pick up my old routine, but I slept through the alarm and didn’t wake until 0630. There were a few chicks this morning and lots of pipped and hatching fuzzy little creatures. They are cute. All black down and fluff.


Ice has been sliding off the push all day. The great slabs are sliding and falling. There are constant booms as they hit other slabs and sometimes massive splashes as they glide into the water.

When we put the boat in the water yesterday the sun came out, and it was clear and blue and beautiful all afternoon and evening,  right into today. There is still blue sky with a few clouds. I am wearing cotton pants, a t-shirt, and cotton flannel. No shoes or socks. No hat, no gloves… this is the first Summer day on Cooper. Alas, there are mosquitos and I finally had to retreat into the tent and zip the screen. It doesn’t matter, it is glorious, and I am happy to be here.

A family stopped this afternoon. They were boating to their camp 30 miles or so farther east and wanted to see who was here. They brought a plate of pastries for me. The ice turned them back last night, so they landed on Cooper to check in. I was asleep and didn’t awake when they approached the camp or tent. They said they called out to me and could see me sleeping in the tent – I always leave the top half of the door unzipped so I can look out – in case I hear a bear, or maybe, so it’s easier for a bear to get in since I’m obviously not going to wake up as one strolls past. I’ve been sleeping so well here and hard. The world could about blow up, and I probably wouldn’t notice. We talked a while before they continued east and I went back to nest checks. I check each nest daily until all the chicks hatch, and then I’ll split the nests and only check them every other day. The wind has picked up, and it sounds like it might be serious.